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Press Coverage

Unbreakable NFL records: Emmitt Smith's mark out of reach?

In's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, JIM TROTTER leads off a roundtable on the NFL's most unbreakable records.

During a video conference call with reporters last week, Arizona Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones acknowledged his desire to break the single-season sacks record of 22.5 held by Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. No surprise there. Jones has been the league's most prolific pass rusher since entering the league in 2012 -- racking up 96 sacks over his eight NFL seasons -- and he just set a career-high with 19 QB takedowns in 2019.

What raised eyebrows during the discussion was his matter-of-fact comment about reaching the record. "I don't think that's hard to get," Jones said.

Confidence is required if you're going to leave a mark on the game, and the 30-year-old Jones definitely wants to be recognized as one of the all-time greats when he walks away. But ... not hard to get?! Eighteen seasons have passed since Strahan shed the attempted block of a Packers tight end and fell on top of the sliding Brett Favre to set the record. And Mark Gastineau held the mark of 22 sacks for 17 years before that.

Breaking Strahan's record has proven to be anything but easy. DeMarcus Ware had 19 sacks with two games to play in 2008, but he managed only one the rest of the way. J.J. Watt had 19.5 with two games to play in 2012, but he finished with 20.5. Aaron Donald had 16.5 with four games to go in 2018, but he was blanked in back-to-back weeks and finished with 20.5. Jared Allen had 17.5 with three games remaining in 2011, but he topped out at 22 -- which also happens to be where Justin Houston finished in 2014 following a four-sack effort in the season finale.

Jones' confidence is understandable. He flourished last season despite facing constant double-teams, and this year, the Cardinals have brought in significant defensive reinforcements. First-round pick Isaiah Simmons has captured the football-watching public's imagination as a versatile linebacker/safety, but don't overlook the free-agent signings of linebackers Devon Kennard and De'Vondre Campbell, as well as the additions of several beefy DTs who figure to provide more push on the interior. Arizona also should be better in the secondary, with veteran cornerbacks Patrick Peterson (suspended for the first six games of last season) and Robert Alford (missed the entire 2019 campaign with a broken leg) in the fold from Day 1.

Can Jones break the record? Of course. Will he break it? That remains to be seen. But the discussion got Press Coverage to wondering:

Which NFL records might never be broken?

Let's turn to my esteemed colleagues, Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha and Michael Silver ...

JUDY BATTISTA: The DiMaggio hit streak of NFL records -- read: the one I can't imagine ever being broken -- is the career rushing mark, held by Emmitt Smith with 18,355 yards. I say this with all due respect to Washington running back Adrian Peterson, who only last week said he still hopes to catch Smith.

Peterson is 35 years old and about to start his 14th NFL season. That he rushed for 898 yards in 15 games last season is a marvel. And yet, when it comes to explaining why Smith won't ever be caught, Peterson is Exhibit A. With 14,216 yards, Peterson is still more than 4,000 yards away from the record. If he averaged 1,000 yards per season, he'd have to play four more years to approach Smith. Alas, Peterson has had two 1,000-yard seasons in the last six. As remarkable as his endurance is -- in the last two seasons, Peterson has averaged 4.2 yards per attempt -- it would take a heavy workload, and wildly good injury luck, for Peterson to even sniff Smith.

The forces are aligned against Peterson and, in fact, any other current running back. There are just four active players in the top 60 of career rushing yards: Frank Gore at No. 3, Peterson at No. 5, LeSean McCoy at 22 and Marshawn Lynch (who came out of retirement to rejoin the Seahawks at the end of last season and hasn't ruled out another return if Seattle again finds itself in need) at 29. Smith had 4,409 rushes in his career, with at least 250 totes in 13 of his 15 seasons. Gore has had just nine seasons with at least 250 carries; Peterson has logged seven. McCoy, at 32, theoretically has more time to play, but he has posted just four 250-carry seasons. The current running backs are no less talented than Smith. McCoy, after all, also catches passes out of the backfield. Smith had 515 catches, for 3,224 yards. McCoy, in 11 seasons, has 503 receptions for 3,797 yards.

In the spread-offense era, McCoy's skill set is what teams want from their backs now. While the multi-skilled running back helps diversify the offense, it also dilutes how many handoffs the back gets. Smith had seven seasons with at least 319 carries, and four of at least 365 -- a staggering workload that would probably get a coach criticized now. For comparison's sake, last year's rushing attempts leader was Derrick Henry, with 303. Peterson's career high came in 2008, when he had 363 carries -- the only time he was above 350.

We have talked and written a lot in the last few years about how the NFL has marginalized the running back -- teams find them in the third round, pay top dollar for only a handful, work them hard for a few years and then discard them as their bodies start to break down. Part of what makes the NFL so fascinating is how the style of play is constantly evolving. Who knows if it will ever evolve back to the heavy-workload running back that Smith was. The running back of the future is likely more similar to Saquon Barkley, as dynamic a back as we've seen in years. And as great as Barkley's breakaway ability is, the Giants would be just as happy to see it come after a swing pass from Daniel Jones as following a handoff. Unless the NFL unexpectedly returns to three yards and a cloud of dust, Smith's record is safe.

JEFFRI CHADIHA: I was really close to going with one of Jerry Rice's career records -- his 197 receiving touchdowns is ridiculous -- but that feels a little too much like low-hanging fruit. NFL teams throw the football so much in the modern era that somebody might actually challenge that mark someday. Interceptions is another story altogether. Paul Krause retired in 1979 with 81 career picks, and it's hard to imagine another defender surpassing that feat in the future.

We've seen a few come close. Rod Woodson ranks third all-time in league history with 71 interceptions, and he needed 17 seasons to take the ball away that often. Charles Woodson finished his 18-year career with 65 interceptions, which ties him for fifth with Ken Riley. Former Ravens safety Ed Reed actually had the best shot in recent memory -- he amassed 64 interceptions -- but he decided to shut down his Hall-of-Fame career after just 12 seasons.

You can see the problem already. The first thing you'd better have to eclipse Krause's mark is a defensive back who can play for a long time. That person also needs to be prolific in the latter half of his career just to have a realistic shot. As proof, Charles Woodson intercepted an incredible 48 passes after he turned 30 years old while Rod Woodson snagged 39 picks in his final eight seasons.

Both those players -- along with Reed -- had the benefit of playing at a time when defenses were still allowed to be far more aggressive than they are today. The severe punishments that result from hammering quarterbacks in the pocket and receivers downfield means passes are being completed at a much higher rate in this NFL. With each passing year, we see quarterbacks become increasingly more effective.

Of the 20 most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL last year, based on passer rating, 14 threw fewer than 10 interceptions. Twelve of those signal-callers completed at least 65 percent of their attempts. There was a time, not that long ago, when a quarterback who completed 60 percent of his throws was considered above average. Now guys like Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill and Las Vegas' Derek Carr are hitting at a 70 percent clip.

This ultimately means that any defender who makes a living chasing receivers is in serious trouble for the foreseeable future when it comes to INTs. Seattle safety Jamal Adams -- an All-Pro talent whom the Seahawks acquired by sending the New York Jets a package that included two first-round picks -- has intercepted only two passes in three pro seasons. New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, has 24 interceptions during his eight years in the league. Finally, chew on this: Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Aqib Talib are the active leaders in interceptions right now with 35, and Talib remains unsigned.

I return to my original thought process here. Jerry Rice did astonishing things as a receiver, but the NFL is going to keep creating new ways for quarterbacks and receivers to thrive. The other side of the football creates far less optimism: It's about finding a way to survive in a world where the rule-makers simply don't value what you do as much. That ultimately means fans of Paul Krause may never have to worry about his place in history.

MICHAEL SILVER: I remember the scene vividly: Kurt Warner was clutching a bible and sporting an ineradicable smile while enjoying the greatest moment of his athletic life. Having just led the St. Louis Rams to a dramatic Super Bowl XXXIV victory over the Tennessee Titans, the out-of-nowhere sensation was digesting the magnitude of his MVP effort on the bus ride from the Georgia Dome to the victory party when Jim Hanifan, the Rams' veteran offensive line coach, approached the quarterback's seat to share some news: With 414 passing yards, Warner had wiped out Joe Montana's Super Bowl record.

Warner nodded politely at Hanifan to acknowledge the statement, but then his gaze turned steely, if only for a split second. "The only record of [Montana's] I want to break is to win five of these babies," Warner told me.

It was an ambitious sentiment, and I respected it: Warner, who a few years earlier had been stocking shelves at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Cedar Falls, Iowa, had reached the pinnacle of his profession at 28, earning regular season MVP honors in his first season as an NFL starter. At that point, The Greatest Show on Turf appeared unstoppable, and the Rams looked like they were on the verge of something special.

Eventually, reality set in. Warner got to two more Super Bowls -- one with the Rams two years later, and one with the Arizona Cardinals seven years after that -- but endured a pair of heartbreaking defeats. Winning the Lombardi Trophy four times as a starting quarterback, a feat accomplished only by Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, proved to be unattainable.

It turned out that when Warner led the Rams to a Super Bowl XXXVI appearance against the underdog New England Patriots in early 2002, he squandered a chance to get halfway to Montana and Bradshaw -- and, in the process, unleashed a force of nature that will likely never be matched.

On that night in New Orleans another upstart, Tom Brady, led the Pats to a championship at the age of 24. Now here we are in 2020: Brady, 43, is about to begin a new chapter of his sporting life with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- and will try to add to the most obscene record in modern football.

Brady is the only quarterback to win six Super Bowls, having also suffered three narrow defeats along the way. It's a record I don't believe will ever be broken, with one caveat: Brady could do it by winning (at least) one with the Bucs, which would put it even further out of reach.

Let's look at this record in the context of Brady's most accomplished rivals throughout the course of his career: He has won as many Super Bowls as Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees -- combined. Russell Wilson, who also deserves to be in that conversation, has won one. Brett Favre won one. Winning Super Bowls requires a coalescence of many forces beyond that of great quarterback play, and also a bit of luck. And yet, somehow, Brady has plowed through those obstacles and earned himself a six-pack of timeless success. If someone breaks this record, I'm willing to wager that I won't be alive to see it.

TROTTER: Speaking of quarterbacks, Mike, for a long time, I thought no signal-caller would ever approach Brett Favre's 297 consecutive starts, but I'm not so sure anymore. Quarterbacks are now playing into their early 40s, which is what Philip Rivers would be if he plays another 4.5 seasons. Health and performance willing, that would put him in line to break that record (Rivers is the league's active leader with 224 consecutive starts).

But there is another Favre record that I believe no one will touch, regardless of their age, and that's interceptions thrown. His 336 picks are 59 more than runner-up George Blanda. The player closest to him who actually played in the 2000s is Vinny Testaverde, with 267.

Favre's record is safe because a quarterback would have to play an awful long time to break it, and I don't believe today's coaches are going to rely on a signal-caller who is that careless with the football, regardless of touchdowns thrown. We just saw Jameis Winston throw for 33 touchdowns and 5,109 yards, making him one of only eight players to ever eclipse 5,000 yards and the fourth-youngest to do it. Still, the sixth-year pro couldn't find a starting job this offseason because of his penchant for turnovers. But let's play the what if game: If there was one player who could challenge the mark, who would it be?

It's not Matthew Stafford, because he would not only have to play nine more seasons, which is plausible, but average 23 picks a year, which seems implausible considering he has not thrown more than 19 interceptions since his rookie year in 2009 and has been at 13 or fewer in each of the last six.

Ben Roethlisberger? He's at 191 now, entering his 17th season, but that means he would have to average more than 24 interceptions over the next six seasons. He has thrown more than 16 in a season only once.

Philip Rivers? He's at 198 and has thrown at least 20 in three of his last nine seasons. But that means he'd have to average 28 over the next five seasons, which isn't likely, particularly in an offense that plans to lean heavily on the run in Indianapolis.

Which brings us back to Winston. He averaged nearly 18 interceptions a year over his first five seasons, a pace he'd have to maintain for 19 seasons to break the record. Possible? Yes. But he'd have to eliminate the excessive highs in giveaways like he had last season while putting up 24-plus touchdown passes (his average through five seasons), to have a shot at the record.

How about you, Judy: Who has the best chance to break the single-season rushing record?

BATTISTA: Did I say that it is Peterson's statistics that makes me realize Smith will never be caught? Let me rephrase: If anybody can catch Smith, it is Peterson. I don't say that lightly, because nothing would delight me more than Frank Gore being the all-time rushing champ, given that I've been hearing about Gore since he was a prep star at Coral Gables High and it was University of Miami players who were doing the talking. Having said that, Gore is already 37 years old and still needs 3,008 yards to tie Smith. I put nothing past Gore, who has overcome devastating injuries and a difficult early family life to construct a career worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration. But he rushed for 599 yards last season and averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt. His last 1,000-yard season was in 2016. The math doesn't add up for Gore.

So, yes, if anybody can do it, it is Peterson. He needs 4,139 yards to tie Smith, but he rushed for 898 yards last season, and he averaged 4.3 yards per rush. Both Gore and Peterson play for teams that could use their help for young quarterbacks -- Gore for the Jets, Peterson for Washington. Because Peterson is younger and has been more productive in recent years, he gets the edge.

Jeffri, who do you think can challenge Krause's mark?

CHADIHA: I feel like my opening argument about the security of Krause's record leaves me with scant options when it comes to determining a threat to that mark. Richard Sherman and Aqib Talib both have the size and savvy to transition to safety in an effort to potentially extend their careers, but they're also getting up there in years. Sherman turned 32 in March while Talib is now 34 and a free agent. Time simply doesn't work in their favor when it comes to this discussion.

The one player who could make a run at it is Baltimore cornerback Marcus Peters. His 27 career interceptions since entering the league with Kansas City in 2015 are easily the most of any player during that time. He's also found a great fit with the Ravens organization after his immaturity led to the Chiefs trading him to the Rams and his inconsistent play led the Rams to send him to Baltimore. The Ravens rewarded Peters with a three-year, $42 million extension late last year, as they see him as a key piece to their championship hopes in the coming years.

Speaking of championships, Mike, who is the one quarterback with the best chance of challenging Brady's supremacy?

SILVER: OK, fine -- there is one young QB who can legitimately fantasize about winning seven Super Bowls: and yes, it's the guy who just won his first at the age of 24, making him the second-youngest (behind Roethlisberger) passer ever to hoist a Lombardi.

Patrick Mahomes is wonderful in every way, from his otherworldly physical abilities to his next-level mental aptitude to his work ethic to his professionalism, and he has a very attainable opportunity to be an all-time great. Of equal importance is the fact that Mahomes plays for a coach -- and an organization -- that seems energized by the challenge of creating a dynasty around him.

Kansas City Chiefs stars Travis Kelce, Chris Jones and Tyreek Hill have openly stated the "D" word as a goal, and head coach Andy Reid, who finally won his first Super Bowl at the age of 61, understandably has no intention of stepping away anytime soon.

In signing Mahomes to a record-setting 10-year, $450-million contract extension last month, the Chiefs made a statement about what they perceive their future to be. I completely applaud the organization for going all out, because Mahomes is that special, and, you know, YOLO.

That said, a lot of things that are out of Mahomes' control would have to go right for him to match Brady's record, let alone exceed it. As Warner can attest, aiming high is awesome, but the target sometimes slips out of reach before you know what hits you.

Or so I am told.

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